At the edge of the desert by Basil Lawrence: a review

  • 0

This genocide is located at the heart of Basil Lawrence’s novel, At the edge of the desert. However, it’s only one of several subplots that co-exist...

The years 1904–1908 saw the 20th century’s first genocide, perpetrated by soldiers of the colonising German army on the Herero and Nama during Namibia’s Colonial War.

In August 1904, the Germans, under the command of General Lothar von Trotha, defeated the Herero at the Battle of Waterberg and drove the survivors into the Omaheke desert, where most died of thirst, with under a thousand making the crossing into British Bechuanaland under the leadership of Samuel Maharero, who is now one of nine National Heroes of Namibia. Those who tried to escape – men, women and children – were shot down or bayoneted to death.

Subsequently, in October 1904, Von Trotha issued his infamous extermination order, commanding the Herero to leave the country or be executed. “I shall spare,” he wrote, “neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.” This order was rescinded after a few months, but that only led to survivors of the initial massacre being placed in concentration camps, where they were treated as slaves, engaged in forced labour until they’d been worked or starved to death.

The most dreadful of these camps was Shark Island at Lüderitzbucht (today’s Lüderitz), a bare, rocky outcrop sticking into the Atlantic and often described as a “death camp”, so appalling were the conditions. The Herero prisoners – soon joined by Nama, after the latter entered the Colonial War in early 1905 – had to bivouac on the bare rock. In an eerie foreshadowing of Josef Mengele’s atrocities in the Second World War, medical experiments were conducted on live prisoners by the camp doctor.

It is estimated that by the time the last concentration camp was closed in 1908, up to 80 percent of the Herero population, together with perhaps half of the Nama, had been exterminated. They had been stripped of their land and cattle, and were banned from owning either – a further disaster for pastoralists. The Herero and Nama were distributed among white farmers as labourers.


This genocide is located at the heart of Basil Lawrence’s novel, At the edge of the desert. However, it’s only one of several subplots that co-exist, weaving among each other through the book, which deals with episodes in the present, recent past and distant past of the first-person narrator, Hermanus (“Henry”) van Wyk.

Henry is a “born and bred Buchter”, having lived in Lüderitz all his life, but for a recently ended five-year stint in Johannesburg, some time away at private schools in South Africa, and studying architecture at university, where he only just passed – perhaps because he was also on the varsity water polo team. He’s now, probably, fortyish and an independent documentary filmmaker who has so far completed one film – on the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd by Dimitri Tsafendas – and is, as we join the book, editing a second on the imaginary, but highly detailed, uniforms of South Africa’s infamous prison gangsters in the Number gangs.

This provides us with one of the narrative strands as he works through – editing and transcribing – an interview with Dollar, a colonel in the 28s. Dollar’s real name is Jan Note, taken from the name assumed by Mzuzephi “Nongoloza” Mathebula, the founder of the Ninevites gang of criminals in early 20th century Johannesburg, who is regarded by “men of the Number” to be their own founder, albeit in a creation myth that diverges sharply from history. Dollar’s role is really to be scary while letting slip details of life in the Number gangs that are interesting enough if you haven’t read, say, Jonny Steinberg’s The number. If you do know something about the Number gangs, then it’s all very familiar and doesn’t move the plot, story or characterisation on that much (except for one scene where Henry shows some rushes of Dollar to his German lover, Jago, who affects disgust but is, it appears, inflamed by them).

Henry’s love-slash-sex life provides another strand. At the very beginning of the book, he meets up with Jago for a swim in the Shark Island tidal pool, and they don’t quite hook up with each other. He met Jago the previous night at his sister’s house – she runs a charity in Lüderitz that is partly funded by an AIDS-awareness NGO, of which Windhoek-based Jago is the regional director. Later, when work takes Henry to Windhoek, they see each other again and, in time, the relationship becomes sexual. Meanwhile, Henry has had sex with underwater diamond miner (and all-round Australian He-Man, in contrast to Jago’s studied Germanic cool and gym-toned physique) Mike Quint – Quinty.

After his relationship with Jago falls inevitably apart – the two never seem remotely compatible – he gets ever closer to Quinty and ends up saving his life at an oceanside party that turns into a night of horrors. (A real positive of the book is that the three obviously gay characters – Henry, Jago and Quinty – have none of the mannerisms that many writers, and not just straight ones, tend to associate with fictional gayness. They are not camp or flamboyant; they don’t have elaborate dinner parties or small dogs, and they never shriek. The campest moment – and it is acknowledged as camp – is when Quinty offers Henry a glass of Cape Velvet, and on a couple of occasions Henry uses the Gayle term monica to refer to money. But, otherwise, the three men are just men; they simply happen to be men who want to have sex with, and fall in love with, other men. And when they do have sex, it is explicit, yet written with a visceral economy.)

Perhaps the most substantial subplot is centred on a barmy would-be cult leader called Will, who, with his wife Amanda, has moved from London to establish a community called Harmony on the outskirts of Lüderitz. Even by the standards of barmy would-be cult leaders, Will’s ideas are pretty wacky (they’re cherry-picked from the work of Charles Fourier, although lacking his anti-Semitism and his belief that the sea would desalinate and taste of lemonade). But people have arguably built cults around wackier ideas. The problem I have with Will is that he appears not to have any charisma whatsoever. He’s a needy bully, but even that would be fine if he could conceal those traits beneath a veneer of charm. He doesn’t. He has managed to pull together a few acolytes, however, and embarked on an affair with Henry’s sister, so they must see something in him; I just can’t work out what. Prior to becoming a barmy would-be cult leader, Will worked in the city after gaining a PhD examining Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (Amanda became a therapist following her classical piano studies – baroque backstories are a feature of the novel).

Henry, who is broke and hustling for gigs, convinces Will that his thinking should be filmed and distributed on social media in order to draw in more acolytes, especially moneyed ones from Europe and the US. This draws Henry closer to Harmony, its rampant dysfunction and the gradual unravelling of Will (who believes he has been saved by Lüderitz, after having gone seriously off the rails in London thanks to a toxic cocktail of overwork, cocaine, ketamine and booze). The filming takes us to Kolmanskop, the supremely photogenic ghost town ten kilometres inland from Lüderitz. While this is a great location for both filming and storytelling, it’s disappointing that Lawrence – using Henry’s voice – doesn’t describe it with more care and detail. Indeed, for someone who studied architecture and is now a filmmaker, Henry is a remarkably nonvisual person as a narrator. Both Kolmanskop and Elizabeth Bay – the setting for the very final section of the novel – are remarkable places, stark and beautiful, and Lawrence’s prose – Henry’s voice – will evoke that beauty if you are familiar with them from experience or photographs, but it doesn’t describe it particularly well.

Yet, another strand provides us with Henry’s “origin story” – how Hermanus van Wyk became Henry. This story is told backwards, so we can only put all the pieces together near the end of the novel. But we get to learn how Henry and his sister Lucia end up being the wards of Elisabet von Escher. Elisabet, whom Henry calls his aunt, was his parents’ employer; she dies a couple of months before the novel begins, and Henry is living in what was her house.

His actual aunt is only ever called Mrs Archipelago. Following a career as a social worker, she is now running a brothel (which is probably the weirdest of the book’s many weird backstories – sometimes I wonder whether the author set up some of the characters with the intention of writing a comedy, but then had a change of heart). I briefly thought her name might have been a reference to Mr Archipelago in Margaret Laurence’s classic early postcolonial short story, “The perfume sea”, but I suspect it’s just being used as a funny-sounding word.

Mrs Archipelago’s son, Chesley, is a lawyer, a partner in a law firm, who has recently moved from Cape Town to Lüderitz, and whose wedding forms one of the first set pieces of the book – Henry has managed to hustle his way into being the wedding videographer, in order to gain some much-needed monica.

It is through Chesley that we are introduced to the genocide. According to Chesley, his law firm is partnering with the University of Cape Town’s law clinic in a class action suit, suing the German government over the genocide. Chesley’s move to Lüderitz has been driven by this, and his law office is intended to be a smokescreen – if all the legal business in Lüderitz came through his door, he tells us, it wouldn’t pay his salary. And the smokescreen is needed because “the other side” mustn’t get wind of what he’s up to. The other side, in this case, is the German government, but also the Namibian authorities, who want to sweep the genocide under the carpet, because lawyers poking around may start getting interested in atrocities they committed during the War of Independence, and also they are reliant on German aid.

And what Chesley is up to – and where Henry and his camera come into the frame – is setting up interviews with Herero descendants of those involved in the genocide, to record the stories that have been handed down through the generations, because disseminating these testimonies online and evoking sympathy will give his case the best chance of winning. (Yes, this is utterly preposterous, and no, that’s not how lawyers operate in the real world, but stick with me.)

Remarkably – incredibly, in fact – Henry has never heard of the genocide until this point, but he grabs his camera and motors upcountry in his bakkie, ready to ask Chesley’s prepared questions. After a luckless period interviewing people who really don’t have anything worthwhile to say, he encounters Ouma Gendredie, who has learned stories from her mother, that were originally related by her grandmother, herself a survivor – an interview that delights Chesley. Although she refers only to a “cold place”, it dawns on Henry that it can only be Lüderitz. Shocked (shocked!) by this, he finds himself buying a book on the genocide at a Windhoek bookshop and actually doing some research.

This is actually in character. It’s clear from early on that, while Henry is a documentary filmmaker, he’s not necessarily a very good documentary filmmaker. He winces his way through a showing of his film, Assassinating apartheid, which his sister Lucia puts on for Will and Amanda – who are clearly confused by it. It takes him two weeks or so to edit Chesley’s wedding video, a job for which a decent wedding videographer might assign a day at most. And he seems to spend many more weeks working just on his footage of Dollar. He accepts paid work from both Will and Chesley with the intention of also using the footage for his own projects, which is pretty unethical. Also, his ethics while filming the ex-cons in the Number gangs are dubious at best – as he himself admits. And it’s his ethics that trip him up in the Herero filming.

Unfortunately, Chesley has brought onto the project another filmmaker, who he wants to work with Henry. And Mitch Danker, the filmmaker in question, really is a good filmmaker – his documentary on Nelson Mandela’s childhood “won him a Sundance”, and the online buzz is that his forthcoming one on Madiba’s final year is “up for another”. Danker is not so much a character as another grotesque, like Mrs Archipelago, and it feels as if he fell into the book from another, more comedic one. He is British, with a speech impediment that means he calls our narrator “Henwy”, and Henry can’t stand him. Danker spots Henry’s ethical shortcuts, very quickly noticing that something just doesn’t smell right.

Armed with his new book, Henry becomes intrigued by a mass grave mentioned in it. This is in the sperrgebiet, that forbidden land to which all access has been restricted since diamonds were found in it shortly before the First World War. That doesn’t stop Henry making his way in, without a permit, and stumbling around the dunes for a bit.

All these strands wend their way through the first two sections of the book, “Lüderitz” and “Kolmanskop”, the latter of which ends with three people drowning: a couple of Belgians who seem to have been written into the book just to be killed off, and Keanu, a feisty young gun-totin’, wall-punchin’ Harmony volunteer from Swakopmund who, despite having an uncomfortable nostalgia for the apartheid years he never knew, strangely manages to be one of the more sympathetic characters in the book.

The final section, “Elizabeth Bay”, is rather more linear. In scenes that are separated by often long periods, it covers Henry’s recovery from a nervous breakdown suffered as a result of the drownings, first at an institution, then at home, with him staying in bed all day in a haze of marijuana smoke, until he finally heeds his doctor’s advice and eases up on the zol. It flashes back to Henry and Lucia taking their aunt on a boat trip to Elizabeth Bay for her 80th birthday, and it reintroduces us to Will, now a shadow of his former self, who is camping at Elizabeth Bay (having been “given the nod” by the mine owner, because that’s how diamond miners in the sperrgebiet tend to treat bedraggled former barmy would-be cult leaders). In the very end, the genocide storyline is neatly wrapped up, and there is a suggestion of future redemption for Henry involving both filmmaking and Quinty.


In structural terms, the novel is fairly complex, with all these story strands travelling at different paces – even different directions – through the book, interleaved with each other. Juggling so many different elements can be tricky, but generally speaking Lawrence manages to keep all his balls in the air, which is impressive.


In structural terms, the novel is fairly complex, with all these story strands travelling at different paces – even different directions – through the book, interleaved with each other. Juggling so many different elements can be tricky, but generally speaking Lawrence manages to keep all his balls in the air, which is impressive.

There is something weird about the timelines, though, as if the book is set in two periods maybe seven or eight years apart.

The book is, broadly, set in the present. And there are references to certain events that push that present firmly into the last few years. Nelson Mandela has been dead for long enough that Mitch Danker has been able to put together a “many voiced paean to the gweat man”. It’s a world of fibre internet (if not in Lüderitz) and local data connections that can handle emailed video files. It’s also a world where same-sex marriage has been around for long enough that Quinty is involved in a same-sex divorce from his husband in Perth.

But there are other parts that only make sense if we push “now” back to 2010 or even a little earlier. For example, there is a flashback scene where an 18-year-old Henry is living in pre-independence Namibia – so, before 1990 – and that just doesn’t make sense unless he’s in his late forties or even older (which is possible, but he was on the same varsity water polo team as his late brother-in-law, who would have turned 39 on the night Henry meets Will and Amanda).

However successful Lawrence is at handling the form, that form is simply the framework, the armature on which characters and stories must hang. And this is where the book is weaker.

The characters are thinly sketched, and their dialogue is often clumsy. There’s very little to grab hold of when it comes to the people – I only have a vague idea what three or four of them look like, and I don’t (for example) even know whether Lucia is Henry’s younger or older sister; maybe they’re twins? And what comes out of their mouths doesn’t really help with the sense of understanding – and without understanding, there’s no empathy.

With a few exceptions (Keanu the boytjie, the slightly pompous Mitch Danker, and Mrs Archipelago with her heavily Afrikaans-laden English), all the main characters speak with much the same voice. Sure, the Englishman Will says “good man” to Henry, the southern African characters speak of zol and braais, and the Australian Quinty adds “mate” to the end of a couple of sentences. But the rhythm, the cadence, of all the voices is very much the same. And the characters speak in full, rolling sentences, just like real people don’t, and when they speak, the amount of exposition is quite extreme. “Show, don’t tell” may be a cliché of the creative writing game, but this book would have certainly benefited from more showing and less telling. When the characters are not being expository in their dialogue, Henry, as often as not, is being so in his internal monologue.

Like the characters, the stories also feel less than fully formed. Perhaps this is partly because the characters are less than fully formed. Or maybe vice versa. The characters cannot drive the stories, and the stories don’t inform the characters. It also feels like a book heaving with missed opportunities. And the biggest missed opportunity is for the stories to talk to each other. Each subplot is more or less discrete.

For example, there are strong connections that can be made between the Herero and the Number gangs. Both have their fantasy uniforms, the Number gangs’ being wholly imaginary apart from some office holders having rank badges tattooed on their shoulders, the Herero men’s being the real thing. Both sets of uniforms are borrowed from the respective colonising/settler powers: the Number gangs’ arise from the Transvaal military and the Natal judiciary, while the Herero uniforms are derived from those of the German, and later the British, army. Both exist as a way of imposing order and asserting masculinity following severe colonial dislocation – unable to own land or cattle, Herero men were unable to assert their status as men in the traditional way, so they formed otruppe, copying the hierarchy and clothing of the occupier’s military; the Number gangs see their founder, Nongoloza, the real Jan Note in mythic form, as an anticolonial freedom fighter who militarised the bandiete to live an existence that was apart from (while still robbing from) the coloniser. (I’m not suggesting that this is what Lawrence should have done, obviously – it is merely one way in which he might have brought greater depth to a book that could really use it.)

All the other storylines would equally benefit from being connected with each other in some way, however slim, rather than just driving forward like half a dozen cars fighting over the same piece of narrow road. All that actually connects them is Henry. And Henry really isn’t that interesting, being self-obsessed almost to the point of solipsism, and generally unengaged with pretty much anything. Were he French, I would diagnose ennui, but I’m not sure that Namibians can catch that. I believe this is a conscious decision by the author, incidentally, but one that he doesn’t manage to pull off – Henry is no Meursault, just as At the edge of the desert is no L’Étranger.

There are, it is true, some thematic signposts. There are many dead people in the book, although I’m not entirely certain why. We find out early on that Henry and Lucia were orphaned (although we only find out how, much later on, by which time we’re quite inured to death, so the impact is somewhat dilute). Lucia’s late husband, Shane, an offshore diamond diver, has been dead five years; at Chesley’s wedding, Henry overhears talk of a death; Keanu’s mother has recently died. A Swedish member of Harmony called Sixten tells how his stepfather killed his mother, and then there is the drowning incident at the Harmony beach party. Meanwhile, people are being blown up by terrorists across Europe, we hear over the radio (although, in a nice twist, the terrorists’ motives are not religious, but “right-wing”). And there’s the genocide. There’s always the genocide, although At the edge of the desert, if anything, fails to communicate the full horror of that.

There’s also a hint that dislocation, or uprootedness, is meant to be a binding element. Most of the characters come from outside Lüderitz, and even Henry and Lucia, born and bred Buchters, have been shifted from their childhood home in a “working-class” area of the town, to the posher environs of their aunt’s house. However, this theme isn’t explored in any detail – but then, nothing actually is. This is not, it must be said, a novel of ideas.

It’s not very clear what sort of novel it is, in fact. If it aims to be literary fiction, then it falls well short of the mark. It just doesn’t have the depth, the richness, the intellectual underpinnings. But then I can’t believe it’s intended to be a quick beach read either – no beach book ever has had the word liminal in its back cover blurb.


What really troubles me about At the edge of the desert, however, is what might be called its racial grammar.


What really troubles me about At the edge of the desert, however, is what might be called its racial grammar. (I am grateful to Myriam Gurba for the term, which I first encountered in her essay, “It’s time to take California back from Joan Didion”, although it was coined by sociologist Eduardo Bonilla.)

Lawrence tries very hard to avoid the topic of race in his book. Apart from one conversation mentioning “white people” at Chesley’s wedding and a couple of references to “white farmers” (who are clearly part of the “other side” from whom Henry must keep his Herero interviews secret), the only explicit reference in the book is in a peculiar rant by Henry to Amanda, after she and Will have watched his documentary the night of their first meeting. Amanda speaks first:

“Henry, why did you say that everyone assumed the assassin was from the Cape?”

“After the murder, the press took for granted that Tsafendas was a capital-C Coloured.” Amanda gave a slight shake of her head, as if jolted by electricity, when I said the word. “His father was Greek and his mother was Coloured,” I continued, ignoring her reaction. “And at the time, as far as South Africans were concerned, being Coloured meant you were from the Cape. But he was Mozambican.”

“You mean ‘mixed race,’ don’t you?” She’d been itching to correct me.

“We’re all mixed race.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to make a thing about this, but I don’t use ‘mixed race’ because it implies one group is mixed whereas another is racially pure, which is bullshit. Same with ‘biracial.’ I’m all for not offending people, but those words are just a convenient lumping together. And they’re wrong.” I’d come to Twin Palms hoping for a quiet evening with my sister, but here I was entangling myself in a conversation about race.

I describe this as “peculiar” because it really is very odd, indeed. Firstly, because Henry himself is “capital-C Coloured”. Lawrence keeps this pretty much under wraps, just leaving a tiny breadcrumb trail that many readers (including, I suspect, all international readers) may miss. Henry and Lucia’s parents were Rehoboth Basters – his name is even the same as the first Kaptein of the Basters. Which you’d expect Amanda might have known, having been close to Lucia for some years. Also, Amanda (as we find out later in the book) is herself a South African, so should be pretty comfortable with people being identified as capital-C Coloured. (The fact that the bit about Dimitri Tsafendas is complete rubbish is just a minor irritation. As shown by the summary of contemporary press reports in Zuleiga Adams’s PhD thesis, Dimitrios Tsafendas: Race, madness and the archive, the media had tracked down Tsafendas’s ancestry within days of Verwoerd’s assassination, and – despite having a mother who was half-Swazi – he was imprisoned as a white man, having unsuccessfully sought reclassification a few years earlier as capital-C Coloured.)

Other than this, race doesn’t get a mention, which is slightly odd when the central event – the genocide of the Herero and Nama – was grounded in an unflinching belief that the people being exterminated were of an inferior race, thanks to the repellent “scientific racism” that was so in vogue at the time.

But, while race is not explicitly mentioned, it is very much there, and the very fact that it is not mentioned makes it loom larger and larger the more one considers the book. The “working-class” neighbourhood where Mrs Archipelago has her home and brothel, and from where Henry and Lucia were uprooted as children, is the historically coloured area. They end up living in a historically white area, with Henry being sent to private schools in South Africa. There is a very real sense of Henry having been thoroughly deracinated by this process – and there are hints that this is, indeed, the case – but this is never explored, the implications never investigated, but merely suggested, as though it’s an Easter egg to be discovered by only the most diligent reader, with simply finding it being all the reward that’s needed.

And then we have the treatment of the Herero. (The Nama are not mentioned, incidentally.)

To start with, the genocide itself is used as little more than a MacGuffin, a device to get Henry moving around the countryside. Lawrence – through Henry – offers no fresh insights (real or fictional) into it, just as he offers no insights into the Number gangs, the assassination of Verwoerd or, really, anything.

But let’s move on to living people.

Once the (majority black) government has been dismissed as a bunch of venal war criminals who would only impede any investigation into the genocide if they knew of it, the field is clear for our Great not-quite-White Saviour to be sent forth into the wilds of the Namibian countryside to free the Herero from the shackles of their past. Apart from Ouma Gendredie, we actually meet very few, but they are presented as living in rural poverty on the farms of “white farmers”, who act as gatekeepers for them. The first we meet in person is an elderly man.

He kept touching my camera – wanting to peer through its viewfinder – and with the help of his family I explained that he had to look at the camera’s glass eye for it to see him and talk loudly so the machine could hear him.

“You see me,” were his first words upon settling down. He rebuked the lens: “I wait for your answer because you forgot us.”

“This machine isn’t a telephone,” his daughter interjected, and I motioned for her to be quiet. Meanwhile the old man’s grandchildren, who were watching, began to giggle.

Despite agreeing to talk some more, the man merely said, “I wait,” and folded his arms, as if preparing to outsit, outwit and outlast his one-eyed opponent.

I don’t believe I’m being unfair when I see this – and the other interviews – as infantilising the Herero. Even Ouma Gendredie, the only Herero voice we really hear, has her speech rendered as halting, broken, childlike English (she’s speaking Otjiherero – presumably fluently – which her grandson is translating into Afrikaans, before it somehow reaches the page in this form). Lawrence says his source material for the interviews was the notorious 1918 “Blue Book” (which is treated with great suspicion by historians, as it is essentially a British propaganda document designed to highlight German abuses – although that doesn’t mean its content is wrong), and a key element of the testimonies recorded in it from genocide survivors is how flowing they are. They don’t stumblingly refer to a “cold place”, but confidently to Lüderitzbucht, as their place of confinement.

But the Herero are not just infantilised. In all aspects, the Herero are portrayed as lacking any agency. They are completely under the control of their “white farmers”, and they need outsiders such as Chesley and Henry to fight their battles for them.

The reality, of course, is that the Herero themselves took the German government to court 20 years ago, while the Namibian government – which has Herero members – has been in serious negotiations with Germany over reparations for some years.

So, to present the Herero, and black Namibians in general, in this way, in 21st century southern Africa, strikes me – if I’m being generous – as tone-deaf. And when I first read Chesley’s paternalistic dismissal of the Namibian authorities, I wasn’t feeling generous; it made me angry.

Indeed, three weeks and five readings of the book further on, it still does.


Writing a negative review is never a pleasant task, but sometimes it just has to be done. Lawrence is a decent writer – some passages of the book are substantially better than decent – and he manages to control a very (possibly overly) complex structure with aplomb. But, unfortunately, the many frustrations of At the edge of the desert, for me, far outweigh its merits.

  • 0


Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.